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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 51, December 10, 2011

Major Work on Violent Conflict

Monday 12 December 2011, by Rakesh Gupta



Ethnic Mobilisation and Violence in Northeast India. by Pahi Saikia; Routledge, London, New York, New Delhi; pages 231; Price: Rs 695.

This book can be read in multiple ways. It is a work of an Indian trained for her doctorate in a foreign university (McGill) where questions are asked and answered in a thesis and new ground is prepared to provide an epistemo-logical turn to the existing literature. Pahi has consciously attempted to do this. The blurb promises to fill epistemological lacunae with regard to causation of success and failures of popular ethnic unrests as among the Bodos, Dimasas aned Misings. In the text references are also to violent ethnic revolts in far-off places like Abkhazia, Nigeria and Peru. The intro-duction opens with a general statement on ethno-nationalist revolts in the Third World states and the Balkans. The work would really get bulky if these were all to find a place of analysis. The theorisation may also come into more complexity if levels of confrontation are related to modes of production/developmental models. The author very efficiently analyses the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda earlier. Here the theorisation on levels of violence in ethno-political mobilisation is linked to process factors and not so much the structural dimensions of the modes of production.

The three cases chosen in this work are those of the Dimasas (Cachar Hills), Bodos (Kokrajhar district) and Misings (North Lakhimpur district) in Northeast India and not in the North-East India. It is not clear if the manner of printing the title makes this difference. It needs to be made unlike as it is done in India. The merit of the book lies here. It examines the levels of violence in a democracy like that of India and so is different from many other books on ethno-nationalist politics in states like Germany, Malaya, Nicaragua, and Turkey, or, for that matter, the works on Milesovic’s ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia.

A general truism is used here to explain to the reader about the levels of violence. This is that accommodation leaves little for violence (Misings), targeted repression leads to mid-level violent mobilisation (Dimasas) and widespread repression leads to high levels of violence (Bodos). This is combined with the orientation and structure of the ethno-nationalists’ capacities of mobilisations through networks and sustained emotional appeals through not weeks of individual agitations but years and decades of sustained violence.

In order to weave her argument, Pahi has brought together a vast body of published and unpublished empirical base to prove her point. This base becomes brighter in the form of graphs and maps as part of sentences and arguments. One also notices that she provides for graphs to show the frameworks of accommodation (p. 133), graphs on state violence (p. 107), graphics showing interaction of state and ethno-nationalist structures from the theories of mobilisation (p. 30).

AS for the process, while reading the evidence provided, especially on the Bodos, a question kept coming to the reviewer’s mind, namely, what was the role of the middle class local elites in spreading the lethality of conflict over plums of power. This came up because the Bodos were part of the government that accepted the demand that Assamese language be made the official language.

Pahi can extend her argument in no time to say that this is the process that she is talking about. From that position with passage of time the leadership changed its demands to include territoriality. Secondly, in case of the Bodos again the issue is that territoriality linked the move-ment to the security concern of the State since it borders with the boundary with China. Thirdly, is it true that initially the support for the Bodo demands came in for support from the state organs in its earlier phase? Lastly, were the Bodos supported to counter the Assam agitations of the 1980s? If so, then will the complexification of the situation increase?

Elite politics even among the tribals in conflict needs to be brought out especially in the context of democracies. Like the Assamese elites the Bodo elites also show signs of cunning as is evident from their chosen non-Bodo targets of violence and avoidance of persistent engagement with the State forces. For this reading of the text see p. 117. The battle among the Assamese and Bodo elites could be seen as a conflict between ego (in-group) and alter ego (out-group). The Indian Centre may still have the last laugh.

The Appendices are made more attractive by the photographs but also give a turn to the emotive revolt.

Pahi needs to be congratulated for this major work on violent conflict which is a must for the reader and the scholar other than the ones working on the area, who will surely benefit from this.

The reviewer is a former Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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